April 2005

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? New York: Perennial, 2002. ISBN 0-06-051605-4.
Bernard Lewis is the preeminent Western historian of Islam and the Middle East. In his long career, he has written more than twenty volumes (the list includes those currently in print) on the subject. In this book he discusses the causes of the centuries-long decline of Islamic civilisation from a once preeminent empire and culture to the present day. The hardcover edition was in press when the September 2001 terrorist attacks took place. So thoroughly does Lewis cover the subject matter that a three page Afterword added in October 2002 suffices to discuss their causes and consequences. This is an excellent place for anybody interested in the “clash of civilisations” to discover the historical context of Islam's confrontation with modernity. Lewis writes with a wit which is so dry you can easily miss it if you aren't looking. For example, “Even when the Ottoman Turks were advancing into southeastern Europe, they were always able to buy much needed equipment for their fleets and armies from Christian European suppliers, to recruit European experts, and even to obtain financial cover from Christian European banks. What is nowadays known as ‘constructive engagement’ has a long history.” (p. 13).

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Scalzi, John. Old Man's War. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-30940-8.
I don't read a lot of contemporary science fiction, but the review by Glenn Reynolds and those of other bloggers he cited on Instapundit motivated me to do the almost unthinkable—buy a just-out science fiction first novel in hardback—and I'm glad I did. It's been a long time since I last devoured a three hundred page novel in less than 36 hours in three big gulps, but this is that kind of page-turner. It will inevitably be compared to Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Remarkably, it stands up well beside the work of the Master, and also explores the kinds of questions of human identity which run through much of Heinlein's later work. The story is in no way derivative, however; this is a thoroughly original work, and even more significant for being the author's first novel in print. Here's a writer to watch.

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Healy, Gene, ed. Go Directly to Jail. Washington: Cato Institute, 2004. ISBN 1-930865-63-5.
Once upon a time, when somebody in the U.S. got carried away and started blowing something out of proportion, people would chide them, “Don't make a federal case out of it.” For most of U.S. history, “federal cases”—criminal prosecutions by the federal government—were a big deal because they were about big things: treason, piracy, counterfeiting, bribery of federal officials, and offences against the law of nations. With the exception of crimes committed in areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as the District of Columbia, Indian reservations, territories, and military bases, all other criminal matters were the concern of the states. Well, times have changed. From the 17 original federal crimes defined by Congress in 1790, the list of federal criminal offences has exploded to more than 4,000 today, occupying 27,000 pages of the U.S. Code, the vast majority added since 1960. But it's worse than that—many of these “crimes” consist of violations of federal regulations, which are promulgated by executive agencies without approval by Congress, constantly changing, often vague and conflicting, and sprawling through three hundred thousand or so pages of the Code of Federal Regulations.

This creates a legal environment in which the ordinary citizen or, for that matter, even a professional expert in an area of regulation cannot know for certain what is legal and what is not. And since these are criminal penalties and prosecutors have broad discretion in charging violators, running afoul of an obscure regulation can lead not just to a fine but serious downtime at Club Fed, such as the seafood dealers facing eight years in the pen for selling lobster tails which violated no U.S. law. And don't talk back to the Eagle—a maintenance supervisor who refused to plead guilty to having a work crew bury some waste paint cans found himself indicted on 43 federal criminal counts (United States v. Carr, 880 F.2d 1550 (1989)). Stir in enforcement programs which are self-funded by the penalties and asset seizures they generate, and you have a recipe for entrepreneurial prosecution at the expense of liberty.

This collection of essays is frightening look at criminalisation run amok, trampling common law principles such as protection against self-incrimination, unlawful search and seizure, and double jeopardy, plus a watering down of the rules of evidence, standard of proof, and need to prove both criminal intent (mens rea) and a criminal act (actus reus). You may also be amazed and appalled at how the traditional discretion accorded trial judges in sentencing has been replaced by what amount to a “spreadsheet of damnation” of 258 cells which, for example, ranks possession of 150 grams of crack cocaine a more serious offence than second-degree murder (p. 137). Each essay concludes with a set of suggestions as to how the trend can be turned around and something resembling the rule of law re-established, but that's not the way to bet. Once the ball of tyranny starts to roll, even in the early stage of the soft tyranny of implied intimidation, it gains momentum all by itself. I suppose we should at be glad they aren't torturing people. Oh, right….

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Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

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Orsenna, Erik. Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif. Paris: Stock, 2004. ISBN 2-234-05698-5.
Two years have passed since Jeanne and her brother Thomas were marooned on the enchanted island of words in La grammaire est une chanson douce (January 2005). In this sequel, Jeanne takes to the air in a glider with a diminutive cartographer to map the Archipelago of Conjugation and search for her brother who has vanished. Jeanne's luck with voyages hasn't changed—the glider crashes on the Island of the Subjunctives, where Jeanne encounters its strange inhabitants, guardians of the verbs which speak of what may be, or may not—the mode of dreams and love (for what is love if not hope and doubt?), the domain of the subjunctive. To employ a subjunctive survival from old French, oft-spoken but rarely thought of as such, « Vive le subjonctif ! ».

The author has been a member of the French Conseil d'État since 1985, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is an accomplished sailor and president of the Centre de la mer, and was elected to l'Académie française in 1998. For additional information, visit his beautiful and creatively designed Web site, where you will find a map of the Archipelago of Conjugation and the first chapter of the book in both text and audio editions.

Can you spot the perspective error made by the artist on the front cover? (Hint: the same goof occurs in the opening title sequence of Star Trek: Voyager.)

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Pais, Abraham. The Genius of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-850614-7.
In this volume Abraham Pais, distinguished physicist and author of Subtle Is the Lord, the definitive scientific biography of Einstein, presents a “portrait gallery” of eminent twentieth century physicists, including Bohr, Dirac, Pauli, von Neumann, Rabi, and others. If you skip the introduction, you may be puzzled at some of the omissions: Heisenberg, Fermi, and Feynman, among others. Pais wanted to look behind the physics to the physicist, and thus restricted his biographies to scientists he personally knew; those not included simply didn't cross his career path sufficiently to permit sketching them in adequate detail. Many of the chapters were originally written for publication in other venues and revised for this book; consequently the balance of scientific and personal biography varies substantially among them, as does the length of the pieces: the chapter on Victor Weisskopf, adapted from an honorary degree presentation, is a mere two and half pages, while that on George Eugene Uhlenbeck, based on a lecture from a memorial symposium, is 33 pages long. The scientific focus is very much on quantum theory and particle physics, and the collected biographies provide an excellent view of the extent to which researchers groped in the dark before discovering phenomena which, presented in a modern textbook, seem obvious in retrospect. One wonders whether the mysteries of present-day physics will seem as straightforward a century from now.

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Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, [1936] 1959. ISBN 0-451-18784-9.
This is Ayn Rand's first novel, which she described to be “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write”. It is a dark story of life in the Soviet Union in 1925, a year after the death of Lenin and a year before Ayn Rand's own emigration to the United States from St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad, the city in which the story is set. Originally published in 1936, this edition was revised by Rand in 1958, shortly after finishing Atlas Shrugged. Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading this novel before, and was surprised to discover that the characters were, in many ways, more complex and believable and the story less preachy than her later work. Despite the supposedly diametrically opposed societies in which they are set and the ideologies of their authors, this story and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle bear remarkable similarities and are worth reading together for an appreciation of how horribly things can go wrong in any society in which, regardless of labels, ideals, and lofty rhetoric, people do not truly own their own lives.

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Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.

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